Four years ago, Neill Blomkamp blasted open the world of cinema with District 9, a wholly South African-made film that not only found its way into American multiplexes but became a hit, as global audiences flocked to see an original science-fiction creature feature with Hollywood-level production values and a distinctively African point of view. This unique and profitable debut feature wrote Blomkamp’s ticket to Hollywood, giving him the chance to play with A-list talent. This week we see his follow-up Elysium, another dystopian science-fiction thriller. It may not be fair to hold his current movie to the high expectations generated by District 9, but a lot of moviegoers do harbor those expectations, and even though Elysium isn’t bad by any means, it doesn’t measure up.
he movie takes place in the mid-22nd century, when Earth is a hot, polluted, overcrowded slum where people live nasty, pestilent, accident-shortened lives. The wealthy are insulated from all this on Elysium, a luxurious space station full of medical equipment that instantly cures all disease. A shaven-headed reformed car thief named Max da Costa (Matt Damon) is relatively lucky to have a job at a defense contractor’s factory in Los Angeles until an industrial accident exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation. With only five days to live and little left to lose, Max goes hat in hand to his old crime boss (Wagner Moura), who agrees to give him life-saving passage to Elysium if he can pull a near-suicidal heist job.
As a South African, Blomkamp has plenty of experience with places where rich and poor live completely separately but within sight of one another. Despite this, he doesn’t manage to comment meaningfully on income inequality and the twisted phenomena that it can generate. In the course of the heist, Max ends up learning some dirt on Elysium’s fascistic French secretary of defense (Jodie Foster), but the idea that he can topple the existing power structure with the push of a button is too easy by half.
None of the characters, including Max, have any particular insight into the workings of their world (or, by extension, ours), and the only personality comes from District 9’s leading man, Sharlto Copley, here playing a sadistic South African rapist-murderer named Kruger working as a hired killer for the defense secretary. Max’s involvement with a childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga) whose young daughter (Emma Tremblay) is dying fails to generate any emotional pull, except during the movie’s one genuinely scary moment, when Kruger gets hold of the little girl and quietly sings her a lullaby in Afrikaans. The time element is mishandled, too, as the movie gives us no sense of any increasing urgency in Max’s quest to get to Elysium before his clock runs out. With all the possibilities in this setup, Blomkamp fails to do anything with it.
But then, you don’t necessarily go to Blomkamp for subtle, carefully worked-out allegories. You go to him because of the extravagant strangeness of his imagination, which manifested itself in District 9 in that movie’s exotic weaponry and the chewy mundane details that made its alternate reality spring to life. There is some of that here, with Blomkamp imagining Elysium as a place full of lush but carefully maintained greenery rising above its metal foundations. The climactic fight sequence takes place on a catwalk with white tree blossoms softly blowing across it, an unexpected and beautiful touch. The heist sequence, which targets the owner of Max’s factory (William Fichtner), is well-managed, too.
Nevertheless, Blomkamp seems tentative in his maiden experience with this kind of budget and talent. The metal exoskeleton that gets welded to the outside of Max’s failing body is borrowed directly from Japanese anime, only without the visceral kick that’s supposed to come from the union of flesh and machine. The jokes that leavened the seriousness of District 9 are absent here, as are the inventive little things that might give either Elysium or future Earth some character. Without Blomkamp’s brand of weirdness, Elysium bears a disconcerting resemblance to last summer’s flavorless Total Recall remake.
A foreign filmmaker like Alfonso Cuarón or Guillermo Del Toro would have seized his chance at the big time and let his imagination run unfettered. We can only hope that Blomkamp either returns to his native land or gets another crack in Hollywood and recovers from the jitters that have obviously paralyzed him here. Whichever it is, his genius needs to find a comfortable place to call home. We’ll all be better for it.
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley. Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Rated R.